A Visit to Kyoto’s Yasaka Jinja

While visiting Kyoto last October, I visited Yasaka Jinja, a Shinto shrine established in the seventh century.

Yasaka Jinja Front Gate

Originally known as “Gion Shrine,” Yasaka Jinja is located near the eastern end of Shijo Dori (Shijō Road), one of Kyoto’s major streets–and a road that often features in my Hiro Hattori mystery novels, though my characters haven’t yet paid a visit to this particular shrine.

Although most visitors enter the shrine through the elaborate entry gate on Shijo Road (see photo above) my visit began at the unassuming back entrance, which opens onto a park. 

Entrance, Yasaka Jinja

(I entered this way because it was the most convenient and direct approach from the Buddhist temples I was visiting earlier in the afternoon.)

 During part of the Meiji Restoration (specifically, from 1871-1946) Yasaka Jinja was one of the most important government-supported shrines in Japan. Since then, its official importance has been downgraded, but the shrine remains a popular destination for worshippers and tourists.

The Gion Matsuri festival originated at Yasaka Jinja, and the famous festival still occurs in Kyoto (and, specifically, in Gion) every July. Originally, the festival involved parading Yasaka Jinja’s guardian deities through the streets of Gion in hopes of warding off fire, pestilance, and other disasters. Modern celebrations are still characterized by floats and parades, and for religious observers are still designed to protect Kyoto and its citizens from disease and natural disasters.

Yasaka Jinja contains a number of well-maintained sub-shrines:

Yasaka Jinja Subshrine

as well as a stage where priests perform a variety of Shinto rituals:

Main Stage, Yasaka Jinja

Like most Shinto shrines (and Buddhist temples), Yasaka Jinja has many guardian statues, carved from stone and standing perpetually ready to protect the shrine and its visitors against evil.

Guardian, Yasaka Jinja (1)

Although a popular tourist attraction and historical site, Yasaka Jinja also remains a place of worship and an important holy site in the Shinto faith. If you visit Kyoto, and have the time, it’s definitely worth the time to visit. 

Have you visited Yasaka Jinja? I’d love to hear what you thought–or if you’d like to go–in the comments! 

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Back from Left Coast Crime!

The blog was more silent than usual last week; I was finishing up a project and out of town for the Left Coast Crime conference – a fantastic West Coast mystery convention, organized by volunteers, that takes place in a different location every year.

This year’s conference, “Honolulu Havoc” — took place at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Resort in Waikiki (O’ahu, Hawaii)

Koi in Pond

The first morning, I participated in “author speed dating” – a chance for readers and authors to meet over breakfast … in 2-minute increments. To my delight, the organizers paired me with Barry Lancet, who writes modern thrillers set in Japan (if you haven’t read him, start with Japantown and you’ll be hooked).

Spann and Lancet (LCC)

Later that morning, I spoke on the Historical Mystery panel with Rebecca Cantrell, Ovidia Yu, Ann Parker, and fantastic moderator Noel Hynd:

Historical Mystery Panel (LCC) (1)

and attended a number of fascinating panels, including this one on co-authorship, moderated by my friend–and fellow mystery author–R. Franklin James.

RF James Panel

Later in the weekend, I moderated a panel on Religion in Crime Fiction, attended even more panels, and spent a lot of time walking on Waikiki Beach.

Diamond Head

I might have consumed a colorful drink or two — purely in the interests of research.

Blue Ocean (2)

The last morning, I rose before dawn and hiked up Diamond Head (the peak in the beach photo above) with mystery authors Gigi Pandian and Diane Vallere. The view and experience were well worth a few hours’ lost sleep.


Today I’m home and back to life-as-usual, fortified with island sunshine and the plot for a brand-new standalone mystery! (Which I’ll write this year, along with the sixth Hiro Hattori novel. Hiro Hattori #5, BETRAYAL AT IGA, is finished and in production for its upcoming July release!)

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Kyoto’s Best Cream Puffs

While visiting the preserved historical streets of Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka in Kyoto’s Eastern Higashiyama ward, I noticed a line of Japanese people snaking out the entrance of a tiny shop. The line extended almost 30 feet into the street, which made me curious, so I headed over for a closer look.

The sign outside the shop featured a rabbit and the words “Yatsuhashi Cream Puff” – and since I’m never one to pass up a pastry, especially when the evidence suggests it’s a good one, I joined the queue.

Like many snack shop lines in Japan, this one moved quickly. Five minutes later, I found myself at the counter. Although the shop had several offerings, I opted for the one that gave the shop its name (which, I noticed, was also what most of the people in front of me had ordered): a custard cream puff.

(Travel tip: if you notice the locals ordering a certain thing–especially if they’re willing to stand in line–it’s probably worth a try.)

I paid my 300 yen (about $3.00) and received an enormous paper sleeve bearing the logo and name of the shop and containing a giant cream puff.

Yatsuhashi Cream Puff

My photos don’t show scale well, but the cream puff was almost twice the size of my fist – about 6″ in diameter.

Custard Cream Puff, Kyoto

The pastry was light and not too sweet, and melted in my mouth–a perfect complement to the silky custard filling, which tasted at least as good as the custard creme I had in Paris. The puff had a perfect amount of filling; every bite had the right proportion of pastry and cream, and though I had to struggle to finish it (remember, this was an enormous snack) I didn’t want to waste a bite. Fortunately, I hadn’t had lunch, so I managed to eat the entire thing.

My only regret is that I live too far from Kyoto to get another one soon. 

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Stepping Back in Time in Kyoto

The mountains of Kyoto’s eastern Higashiyama ward are home to many famous Buddhist temples and Shintō shrines. They’re also home to Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka, a pair of preserved historical streets where visitors can step back in time three hundred years to the time when geiko (geisha) and samurai walked these narrow roads and watched the seasons change at the many teahouses and restaurants that line the hilly streets.

Sannen-Zaka, Kyoto (1)

In addition to restaurants and teahouses, the streets have numerous roadside vendors and small shops selling a wide variety of snacks, including some that may seem unusual to Western visitors–like pickles on a stick:

Pickles on Sticks, Sannen-Zaka

But whether you’re adventurous or prefer more familiar snacks, the wide variety of options definitely include something for every taste.

Visitors who step off the beaten path can also find lovely teahouses and gardens:

sannen-zaka park (1)

Buildings along the streets have been carefully preserved, allowing visitors to experience a walk through historical Japan:


The window displays are often modern, but with a traditional flair:

Autumn Window Display, Sannen-Zaka

And while some shops and restaurants have glass display windows, many retain a more traditional appearance:

Nakamura Restaurant, Sannen-zaka

It’s possible to walk through the streets in 45 minutes, if you hurry, but you miss a lot by hurrying through, so I’d recommend a longer visit. I spent a little over an hour there–and could have spent far more, but I also wanted to see a few of the temples in the area, and didn’t have time for a longer visit. Next time, though, I hope to spend a whole afternoon in ninen-zaka and sannen-zaka.

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The Best Tonkatsu in Kyoto

Japanese food is not all fish and saké.

The food in Japan is diverse, vibrant, and almost always as fantastic to the eye as it is to the palate. When traveling in Japan, I try to eat at different places every day, to experience as much as possible. Although I often want to repeat a meal, I rarely do, because I want to sample as much as possible on every trip.

However, on occasion I can’t resist a repeat meal … and Tonkatsu KYK (とんかつKYK京都ポルタ店) in the Porta underground dining area immediately adjacent to Kyoto Station was responsible not just one, but two of the best meals I’ve ever eaten in Japan.

Katsu is the Japanese word for a fried meat cutlet, generally breaded. Tonkatsu is pork, and Torikatsu is chicken. The meal below is the “special black pork tenderloin katsu dinner” at Tonkatsu KYK:

black pork dinner kyoto eki

From top center, clockwise: Pork tenderloin tonkatsu, shredded cabbage salad, rice, pork soup, and tray with tonkatsu sauce.

This particular restaurant offers tonkatsu made with different cuts of pork, and also allows guests to choose from three different sizes of pork cutlets. I chose the “special black pork” – a higher grade of meat, from heirloom pigs – and the medium-sized cutlet:

Tonkatsu (Black Pork)

The soup is a pork broth (so rich that it almost tastes like gravy rather than soup) with potatoes, root vegetables, carrots, and onions, as well as generous chunks of pork:


Most of the meals at Tonkatsu KSK come with miso soup; only the black pork specials come with pork soup – so if you prefer a heartier soup, definitely opt for the black pork tonkatsu also.

The meal was so delicious that I opted to return the following night — and ordered exactly the same meal the second time.

I regret nothing.

In fact, when I return to Kyoto, I’m already planning to visit the restaurant again – and if you find yourself in Kyoto Eki at meal time, I recommend that you visit too.

Tonkatsu KSK is located in the underground Porta dining area adjacent to Kyoto Eki (Kyoto Station) – and the complete black pork tenderloin dinner will set you back about $20.

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Ryozen Kannon: A Monument for the Unknown Soldiers of the Pacific War

The Ryozen Kannon memorial stands in Kyoto’s Higashiyama district, near a cluster of well-known temples (including Kiyomizu-dera and Kodai-ji)

Ryozen Kannon

Kannon (Avalokiteśvara), the Bodhisattva of mercy, is sometimes portrayed as male in Japan, but the statue at the Ryozen Kannon memorial is female. Made of concrete and steel, the seated image rises 80 feet high and weighs around 500 tons.

The memorial opened on June 8, 1955, and exists to honor the unknown soldiers who died in the Pacific War (World War II). The memorial is also home to memorial tablets for over 2 million Japanese people who died during World War II.

Entrance to Ryozan Kannon Memorial

In return for a small entry fee (about $3), visitors can enter the memorial and place a stick of incense in the burner on behalf of the unknown soldiers.

Ticket & incense, Ryozan Kannon

Within the hall beneath Kannon, Buddhist priests hold services four times a day on behalf of everyone - known and unknown – who perished in the Pacific war.

Incense Burner, Ryozan Kannon

If you visit Higashiyama, be sure to include a stop at the Ryozen Kannon (and, for those who collect goshuin, remember to have your book stamped inside the hall).

Ryozen Kannon (1)

Regardless of your faith, the statue is a lovely example of Buddhist art, and definitely worth the visit. 

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Breakfast at a Japanese Buddhist Temple

Many Buddhist temples in Japan offer overnight lodging and meals for visitors. In most cases, these meals follow the standards of shōjin ryōri (literally “devotional cuisine”), a vegetarian style of cooking that involves no meat — and in some cases, no “vegetables that excite the senses” like spicy peppers and garlic.

Some people think that meals without meat or heavy spice sound “boring” – but shōjin ryōri is one of my favorite styles of eating in Japan, and every temple meal I’ve eaten ranks among the most delicious food I’ve sampled in Japan.

Here’s what travelers can expect from a typical shōjin ryōri breakfast in Japan:

Tatsueji Temple Breakfast (1)

Clockwise, from upper left:

- hard-boiled egg (tamago)

tsukemono (pickled cucumber and plum)

- The small plastic package is nori — seaweed – which most people crumble and add to either the soup or the rice.

- The covered bowl contains miso soup (see the other photo below – taken after I remembered to take the lid off…)

Tatsueji Temple Breakfast

- To the left of the soup, a cold salad of shredded vegetables tossed with sesame and sweet rice vinegar.

- Sweet beans.

Rice and tea complete the meal.

To many Westerners (and Americans in particular) this might seem like an unusual way to start the day. However, it’s actually a delicious meal – as well as filling and nutritious — and unlike many Western breakfasts, it won’t leave you feeling hungry before lunch.

Although it’s easy to find “American breakfast” or “Western breakfast” in Japan (and coffee shops abound) if you ever have the chance to sleep at a Buddhist temple and experience shojin ryori, I hope you will. The food is delicious, and you might just find (as I did) that you even prefer a temple breakfast to its American counterpart (at least when you’re in Japan)

Have you eaten shojin ryori? Would you like to try a temple breakfast?

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The Night I Met a Ghost in Japan

While visiting Japan last November, I spent several nights on Mount Kōya – the heart of Shingon Buddhism in Japan, and the setting for an upcoming Hiro Hattori mystery. (The one that comes after this summer’s Betrayal at Iga.)

Okunoin Graves

On one of those nights, I took a walk after dark in the famous cemetery at Okunoin – and had an experience that changed my view of ghosts forever.

You can find the whole story at Murder is Everywhere: A True Ghost Story From Japan.

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Option Clauses in Publishing Deals

Most publishing contracts include an “option clause” giving the publisher rights of first refusal to consider the author’s next work(s) of fiction. However, many option clauses overreach or attempt to bind the author inappropriately.

Look for these important features in any publishing option clause:

1.  The option should governs the author’s next book length work in the same series or next book-length work in the same genre only.

By contrast, overreaching clauses may give the publisher an option on all future works the author writes – of any length, and in any genre. Don’t agree to open-ended option clauses.

2. Properly drafted options give the publisher a right to review and negotiate a mutually acceptable contract for that work (if desired).

By contrast, poorly drafted options may allow the publisher to simply “include” the optioned work in the original contract. This is dangerous for the author. Insist on the right to negotiate a new contract for any optioned works.

Also: the option should not require the author to accept identical terms for publication of the optioned work. The terms of publication for the optioned work should be negotiated independently at the time the optioned work is put under contract.

If a publisher wants to include multiple books in a single contract, then the contract should be for a multi-book deal, not a single book and an option.

 3. The option must not limit the author’s ability to sell the optioned work in any way if the publisher chooses not to exercise the option or if the parties can’t reach agreeable contract terms.

Publishers should not be able to limit the author to subsequently accepting only “better terms” than the original publisher offered for the optioned work. If the publisher and author can’t reach agreement during the stated option period, the author should be free to do whatever (s)he likes with the optioned work – no exceptions.

Beware of options which limit or restrict the way the author can sell the optioned work if negotiations with the publisher fail.

Don’t get so excited about the existence of an “option” that you forget to evaluate its terms carefully & get a professional opinion about the language.

Many times, deciphering contract language requires knowledge of the industry and the possible lurking problems. Contract language can be complex, and dangers sometimes lurk in what isn’t said as well as in the text itself. Obtain a professional opinion before signing a contract containing an option clause – and don’t be afraid to walk away from a deal that doesn’t treat you or your work with proper business respect. Having no publishing deal at all is better than having a deal you regret.


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Okuninushi-no-Mikoto, Japanese God of Love (& Good Matches)

Shintō, the indigenous Japanese religion, recognizes many (read: thousands) of kami (gods, or divine beings). Given that February 14 is Valentine’s Day in the United States, today seemed like a good opportunity to share a little about Okuninushi-no-mikoto, the Japanese kami who acts as the patron god of love and “good matches” (in love and marriage).


Centuries ago, Okuninushi fell in love with Suseri-hime, daughter of the storm god Susanoo (also, the god of the sea and one of the most powerful kami in the Shintō pantheon–basically, not a guy you mess with).

Susanoo opposed the match, and demanded that Okuninushi prove himself by spending the night in a room full of snakes. Secretly, Princess Suseri gave Okuninushi a sacred scarf which protected him through the night.

Aghast that his daughter’s suitor had survived, Susanoo demanded that Okuninushi spend the next night in a room full of centipedes (most likely, the foot-long nightmare spawn known as “mukade“) and scorpions – but once again, with the princess’s help, Okuninushi emerged unscathed.

Finally, Susanoo “agreed” to the match–provided Okuninushi could retrieve a single arrow Susanoo shot into a vast meadow. After Okuninushi set off in search of the arrow, Susanoo set the plain on fire; the flames surrounded Okuninushi, who found himself trapped with no escape.

Suddenly, a field mouse appeared and offered Okuninushi refuge in its hole. The fire raged overhead, but Okuninushi hid in the hole beneath the ground and escaped the inferno. While he waited in the hole for the fire to pass, the mouse returned, bearing Susanoo’s arrow, which it delivered to Okuninushi, allowing him to win the hand of the princess.

Thus, the field mouse symbolizes Okuninushi–the benevolent, kindhearted god of love and marriage. Okuninushi’s other messenger is the rabbit, explaining its presence on the statue above, which is located at Jishu Shrine, within the temple complex at Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera.

People hoping for a successful marriage, or to find a love match, often visit Jishu Jinja and leave offerings, or try to walk blindfolded across the open space between a pair of posts – successfully reaching the second post unaided supposedly guarantees success in love. Fortunately, blindfolded walkers can also get assistance from a sighted guide – but doing so supposedly means their success in love will also require a go-between.

Happy Valentine’s Day – and may Okuninushi-no-mikoto smile on you in love!

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